In my mind, every race is an adventure, even the boring ones. Truth be told, there are many times that I’m in the middle of an event and I start to think about whether it will have a story to tell. I’ve stared at gravel passing under my wheels convinced that that the story will be that I simply pedaled my bike, nothing more. Then, there are other races when I wish I’d had a note pad with me, because there seems to be no possible way to remember all that happened during that day or days. The bottom line is that if one takes the time to reflect there will always be an adventure in there somewhere, even if it lies in the sheer nothingness of the hours that pass. 2015 has been a year that has taken me on a ride I’ll never forget. The good news is that it’s not over yet.
Post Trans Iowa cleanup...
Springtime means Trans Iowa. The T.I. is a crazy-long gravel race in Iowa that has gained popularity not only from racers, but also from the spectators who scratch their heads in wonder at the "Why?" of it. For me, the Trans Iowa is on my mind almost daily throughout the year whether I’m signed up for the event or not. Well, in 2015 I was signed up and it went into the record books as one of the most extreme Trans Iowa’s ever. A hurricane over the Midwest, if that’s possible, settled over the great state of Iowa and parked itself there. The elements, which consisted of temperatures in the 30’s, rain, wind, and copious amounts of mud, wreaked havoc on me mentally and physically. At times maximum power to my pedals yielded only 8 miles per hour while I leaned my Warbird into the wind. My bicycle earned its name with every pedal stroke. Soaked to the bone despite quality raingear I pushed on finding solace in a partner equally matched in fitness and spirit, named Scott Bigelow. We marveled at the intensity of the situation as we secretly watched our clocks, racing against an ominous cutoff time. Ultimately, we missed that cutoff, the first one I’ve ever missed. Our Trans Iowa ended 6 hours after it started. In fact, the entire field except one rider, Greg Gleason, failed to make the first cutoff time. I came away from that experience with the knowledge that despite the conditions I was willing to fight to the end and carry on as long as I was able, and for that I am proud.
There's a lot of Iowa gravel in that tub...
Picture a scene of controlled decadence, complete with cordoned off streets, rock music, and girls on roller skates. Now, put yourself into that scene and plop the whole thing into the middle of Kansas and you’ll find yourself at the Dirty Kanza. This would be my sixth time racing the Dirty Kanza 200, but this time was sure to be different. The central plains, particularly Kansas, had recently experienced severe rain, which resulted in extensive flooding. Nevertheless, I set my sights on a goal time that would require me to stay on top of my game throughout the day and into the early evening. It wasn’t long before my plans were called into question. As hundreds of riders approached the 10-mile mark they were forced to dismount and carry their machines for what seemed to be an endless 3-mile stretch of shoe-sucking mud. I was one of those riders and I cursed my heavy load as the saddle rails cut deep into my shoulder. Every few minutes I repositioned the bike trying to find some respite from the pain. Time slipped away as I marched through the ankle deep mud, my goals along with it. Disappointed with the hour and a half slog I vowed to stay the course. Taking care not to become a casualty along the side of the road I nursed the bike, avoiding the sticky soil the best that I could. Time seemed to stand still as I rolled through the moist Kansas gravel. Eventually, the drudgery of the day gave way to breathtaking scenery as I made my way through the Flint Hills. The hills stretched off into the distance until the green of the grass met the blue of the sky. There wasn't a man-made object to be seen save the two-track of gravel unfolding before me. I paused to take it all in, holding my breath in an effort to not alter the experience. As I exhaled I was reminded that I was alive and that these were some of the moments I was living for.
Still waiting for what I deemed to be a successful race I found myself lined up at the Lutsen 99'er. The 99'er is a mix of gravel and mountain biking and is set in my home state of Minnesota. The course dances atop the Sawtooth Mountains, just inland from the north shore of Lake Superior. The event attracts riders from across the country and certainly the best of the Midwest. Each year I've competed in this race I've come to it with one strategy, go as hard as I can in the beginning and just hold on for as long as possible! This would be my forth go round with the 99’er; my best finish being a fifth place, which I still consider a mixture of good luck and good tactics. With the race as popular as it has become I knew a fifth overall would most likely be out of my reach, but my strategy remained the same. Once underway I went hard off the start and found myself riding with the likes of Jeff Hall and Steve Tilford. I knew that wouldn't last, but it was still pretty cool to be riding near them in a race. After a lung-sucking five miles of tarmac with 1,000 feet of climbing we hit the first off-road section. The pace went straight to the moon, but I was in good position and riding fairly comfortably near the lead woman who was being paced by John Murphy, a professional roadie who’s part of the United Health Care team. With John on the front of our little group of eight the pace was insane, but I was holding on. To my surprise I was able to drop the pro on the off-road sections, but what he did on the gravel was incredible. I didn't dare let more than a two-foot gap form between my front wheel and the rider ahead of me. To do so would only mean out of the saddle max efforts to close it down. Going deep was all I did. It was clear I had been pulled into a group stronger than myself, but I was with them so I needed to stay there! The amount of times I went full throttle and asked my legs for more was beyond what I thought possible. "Eight miles to go and this pain will be over," I told myself as I rounded a corner out of an aid station. It was the coasting through the corner that did it. My right quad locked up into a tennis ball, then my left groin, and finally my right calf, all in quick succession. I watched my group leave me in the dust as I winced through the pain. The cramps came and went through those remaining miles until finally the last climb to the finish. After six hours of some of the most intense effort I've ever laid down I was the 17th rider to cross the line. A result I am proud of to be sure with a different kind of adventure attached.
Pre-I'm-melting-stage at the Maah Daah Hey 100...
Several weeks would pass as I prepared for the Maah Daah Hey 100, North Dakota's singletrack jaunt through the Badlands where temperatures are known to soar to extraterrestrial highs. I felt my preparation was good and as the date came closer I knew from early weather forecasts that things were going to heat up. I'd been hot in the Dirty Kanza on multiple occasions so I wasn't overly concerned about the heat. Once underway, circumstances gradually changed from uncomfortable to unbearable. Mountain biking in extreme heat is much different than riding gravel in similar conditions. The singletrack trail of the Maah Daah Hey demanded my constant attention as well as delivered an all-day full-body workout. While the heat continued to rise my pace slowed. I was no longer able or even willing to take on nutrition as the thought of it cued my gag reflex. Fluids began to slosh in my stomach proving completely useless to my quickly dehydrating body. Heat emanated from my skin like a burner on a stove. The only thing I could think about was finding a way to cool down. The complete desperation of my situation came to me as I pushed my bike up a small incline in the middle of a grass-covered prairie. I focused on my GPS searching for the temperature as the heat rose up from the ground beneath me. 109.5 degrees! I struggled to the final aid station where ultimately my body succumbed to the heat resulting in violent bouts of vomiting. My Maah Daah Hey 100 was over, just 14 miles from the finish. I could turn the pedals over no more. I left North Dakota feeling disappointed, but secure in knowing I had done my best in an extreme environment. When I think back to those moments I can feel myself getting warm.
As crisp air began to arrive in the Northland it had become clear that summer was closing up shop. There was one more event on my schedule and it wasn't a race. The first-ever Salsa RideCamp is where I planned to go unwind, ride for fun, meet good people, and sort out my feelings about these past months on the bike. The location was perfect; close to home. I cruised through the short one hour and thirty minute drive down to camp and let things unfold. I saw my old friends from the Salsa crew and I met new ones. The rides were fun, just the way they should be, and I even got to put down the gas a few times with some solid riders. Campfires, bikes and good friends seem to always put things into perspective for me. As I listened to the presentations, some were about winning and some were about losing, but all were about adventure.
So, as I was packing up my gear on Sunday I surveyed the field of tents before me and it came to me: In a way I had the best season I could have ever had. I hadn’t failed. In fact I'd done just the opposite. I'd left every event with an experience I'll never forget and I came away with some of the best adventures of my life.
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Tim (Eki) Ek
Tim Ek was born and raised in Duluth, Minn., and still calls it home. He’s always had a passion for competition and seeking his own extremes. Tim's true love is the woods: Out in the wild is where he clears his head and finds his peace, and he prefers getting there by bike. Tim Ek: The Eki Chronicles, ekichronicles2.kinetic-fitness.com